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What do Turkey’s election results mean for the Kurds?

Turkey’s 2023 elections are over. The Erdogan-led People’s Alliance will continue to enjoy a comfortable majority in the Parliament. Barring unlikely snap elections, incumbent president Recep Tayyip Erdogan will lead the country for another five years.

Two important political phenomena are likely to follow the elections: the rise of Turkish nationalism and further criminalization of the pro-Kurdish political movement, and the normalization of Islamist ideology within Turkey’s legal politics. These will strengthen anti-democratic practices in Turkey and limit the possibilities for peacebuilding. As a result, ongoing policies of war in Kurdistan and the criminalization of Turkey’s pro-Kurdish political movement will continue in the near future.

Turkish nationalism and anti-Kurdish politics on the rise

The opposition Nation Alliance participated in the elections on two separate lists. The far-right nationalist Good Party (IYIP) obtained 43 MPs, the same as in 2018. However, they have another candidate who has been elected from the Republican People’s Party (CHP) lists in Istanbul. This party will thus have one more MP in the new parliament. Another nationalist party in the Nation Alliance, the Democrat Party (DP), will have three MPs elected from CHP lists—which means a small increase from its previous two MPs.

In the People’s Alliance, the far-right Nationalist Action Party (MHP) will have 50 MPs instead of 49 seats that they obtained in 2018. The Justice and Development Party (AKP), which today can also be classified as a far-right nationalist party, will be represented with 264 MPs once four Islamist MPs from the Free Cause Party (HÜDAPAR) return to their own party. As a result, 361 of 600 MPs will be from far-right Turkish nationalist parties, and there will be more Turkish nationalists in the parliament elected from other lists.

This is not the only reason why right-wing Turkish nationalism is on the rise in Turkish legal politics. The Ancestral Alliance, led by Umit Ozdag’s Victory Party (ZP), received almost 2.5 percent of the total votes. They will not be represented in the parliament, since Turkey has a 7 percent electoral threshold for alliances in order to obtain parliamentary representation. That said, this is a considerable amount of votes for an ultranationalist party which has dedicated significant effort and time to criminalizing and provoking the pro-Kurdish political movement, Kurdish voters, and immigrants. Moreover, its presidential candidate Ogan has received more than 5 percent of the votes. This made both Ozdag and Ogan key figures for the second round of the presidential elections.

While Ogan declared support for Erdogan, Ozdag endorsed Kilicdaroglu following a problematic agreement that included promises to continue anti-Kurdish practices like the appointment of trustees, and guarantees on deporting all refugees within one year. Considering that most of their votes can be considered reactionary, Ogan’s and Ozdag’s control of their voters’ second-round decision-making was probably low. However, they managed to use their position to further criminalize the pro-Kurdish political movement and Turkey’s Kurdish citizens. The fact that Ogan and the Turkish far-right were given increased screen time by pro-government media and Ozdag became more visible in opposition-supporting platforms was nothing but bad news for minorities.

The common factor uniting all of these aforementioned nationalist political parties is a strong anti-Kurdish position. This will promote further militarization of Kurdish-populated cities, criminalization of pro-Kurdish politicians, censorship of pro-Kurdish media, and the continuation of anti-democratic practices like trustee appointments. Moreover, this means that the interventionist policies of Erdogan’s government targeting the Kurdish populations of Iraq and Syria are supported by most voters. Thus, Turkish interventions in Iraq and Syria will likely continue during the next few years.

There is a growing cleavage between the pro-Kurdish political movement and the rest of the opposition. The political discourses of the opposition before the second round of presidential elections lent vocal support to some of Erdogan’s most anti-democratic policies, such as appointing trustees in Kurdish-populated cities and leading military interventions into neighboring countries. In the end, Kilicdaroglu and his chief supporters repeatedly stated that they were more nationalist than Erdogan to convince nationalist voters to vote against Erdogan— but now that Erdogan has won, all these remarks can be used by him to legitimize his own policies.

Normalization of Islamist ideology

As of May 13, only one representative of an Islamist party in the Turkish parliament had not been elected from People’s Alliance list; this was an MP from the traditional Islamist Felicity Party (SP). May 15 presents a very different situation. Due to the CHP’s alliance with the SP and two other Islamist (one conservative and one liberal) political parties founded by ex-AKP officials, there will be a variety of Islamist political parties in the new parliament. The Democracy and Progress Party (DEVA), founded by AKP’s former head of economy (Ali Babacan); the Future Party (GP), founded by Erdogan’s former Prime Minister (Ahmet Davutoglu); and the SP received a combined 35 seats thanks to CHP’s quota. This means that there will be three Islamist opposition parties, each of them with at least 10 MPs, in the parliament.

The People’s Alliance, on the other hand, has always included Islamists. Now, however, it will include two political parties that are even more radical than Erdogan’s AKP. The New Welfare Party (YRP) censored images of its own female candidates and images in which male and female candidates were shown together. Its demands include re-structuring Law 6284 on the prevention of violence against women, banning all LGBTI+ associations, removing the obligation of subsistence money paid to divorced women, not accepting women’s testimonies about criminal cases without witnesses among other examples of extreme sexism. This party has obtained five seats in the parliament. HÜDAPAR will also be represented by four MPs elected from the AKP’s lists. HÜDAPAR is linked to Turkish Hezbollah, which was a Kurdish Islamist paramilitary group involved in grave human rights violations and massacres alongside Turkish security forces. HÜDAPAR openly rejects equality between men and women.

The pro-Kurdish political movement is known for its pro-women position in all parts of Kurdistan and its promotion of political secularism. The rise of Islamist ideology and its normalization in the parliament will be used to delegitimize the pro-Kurdish political movement along these lines. By using religious references, the pro-Kurdish political movement can be negatively evaluated with attributions of immorality based on a misogynic Islamist discourse. Moreover, considering that the AKP government is collaborating with Islamist militias in Syria against pro-Kurdish groups, more Islamists in the parliament may mean more support to the ongoing policies of war.

Contrary to the previous parliamentary terms, there will be Islamists in both camps during the upcoming years. If at least two of the Islamist parties of Nation Alliance form a joint parliamentary group (which requires at least 20 MPs), they would have the right to participate in parliamentary commissions, speak in the Parliament, and appoint representatives in some supreme councils, among other benefits. This means that even though these three Islamist parties are not likely to represent more than 1 percent of the total votes in the country, they will have ample opportunities to shape public opinion during the next term—which will bolster the Islamist discourse of Erdogan and his government and potentially lead to more support for Islamists abroad.

War in Kurdistan

Erdogan is expected to continue his policies of war in all parts of Kurdistan. Five of the seven political parties with the most votes (AKP, MHP, IYIP, ZP, and YRP) already support these policies. Even in the Nation Alliance, there were at least three political parties that were expected to politically support the militarization of Kurdistan and criminalization of the pro-Kurdish political movement before the elections: IYIP, a political party that has always supported the anti-Kurdish policies of the government and almost left the alliance due to the pro-Kurdish political movement’s support for its presidential candidate; GP, whose leader served as Prime Minister of Turkey between August 2014 and May 2016, when some Kurdish-populated cities were completely destroyed and was the supposed ‘mastermind’ behind Turkey’s pro-Islamist foreign policy in the Middle East; and DP, a small nationalist political party known for its criminalization of pro-Kurdish MPs. These three parties will have a combined 57 seats in the parliament. It should be noted that Erdogan’s People’s Alliance has obtained 323 seats in the parliament, and there are two other Islamist parties in Nation Alliance which will have another 25 seats. In the end, the Parliament will overwhelmingly consist of right-wing MPs who are expected to support military intervention in Kurdish regions.

Kilicdaroglu’s attempts to convince nationalist voters before the second round of the presidential elections made things considerably worse. Some of his chief supporters made comments that criticized the government for its failure to make war in a more ‘efficient’ way with the pro-Kurdish groups. Mansur Yavas, the mayor of Ankara who was supposed to be one of the vice-presidents in case of a Kilicdaroglu victory, criticized the government for not being able to completely destroy the Qandil Mountains, which are located in Iraq-Iran border and known for hosting the PKK (Kurdistan Workers’ Party) headquarters. Shortly before the elections, Kilicdaroglu implied that Salih Muslim, co-chairman of the pro-Kurdish PYD (Democratic Union Party) in Rojava, was a terrorist. On the other hand, Ozdag, who supported Kilicdaroglu in the second round, promised further military interventions into Qandil Mountains on Twitter. After reproducing such war-supporting discourses, it will be nearly impossible for CHP and its allies to criticize the future acts of war in Kurdistan.

In his official TRT (Turkey’s public broadcaster) propaganda video, Ogan stated that the HDP’s real objective is forming a ‘PKKland’ (PKKistan) in Syria and praised Turkish military intervention for destroying this plan. Erdogan also boasted about destroying terrorists in their ‘nests’. Nearly all political actors in the country, except for the pro-Kurdish political movement and its left-wing allies, used the second round of the election to prove that they would be the most belligerent toward Kurdish groups in neighboring countries.

Criminalization of pro-Kurdish politicians

Many members of the pro-Kurdish political movement, including the former co-chairs of the HDP, have been in jail for years. Almost all pro-Kurdish mayors have been removed from their posts by the government and replaced by government officials without holding new elections. While SP and DEVA have not supported these policies, IYIP and ZP back Erdogan when it comes to the criminalization of the pro-Kurdish political movement.

The CHP will have 130 MPs once the candidates from other parties in the opposition alliance return to their own parties. The Labor and Freedom Alliance has obtained 65 seats in the parliament. Even combined, these two parties will hold less than one- third of the seats. Furthermore, by competing for nationalist votes after the first round of the presidential election, Kilicdaroglu contributed to further criminalization of the pro-Kurdish political movement—which makes it even easier for Erdogan to continue with his anti-Kurdish political agenda.

Kilicdaroglu publicly implied that Sirri Sakik, a well-known member of HDP who has been MP and mayor in past occasions, was a terrorist. He also agreed to continue with the practice of appointing trustees in order to fight against ‘terror’ in his joint press release with Ozdag. In his TRT video, he criticized Erdogan for engaging in peace negotiations with the PKK in the past. He said that he did not know if HDP was the ‘political arm’ of PKK, that it should be banned if it is, and that if it is not banned, that is Erdogan’s fault. In the same speech, he criticized Erdogan for negotiating with Ocalan, the imprisoned head of PKK. Finally, he stated that the government should do whatever it can to fight against ‘terrorism’, further legitimizing Erdogan’s ongoing policies.

In the other camp, Ogan stated in his TRT video that he supports Erdogan because the HDP supports Kilicdaroglu, which would mean, according to him, that a Kilicdaroglu victory would have  led to an end to military operations against the PKK. Erdogan also displayed fake videos of PKK cadre supposedly supporting Kilicdaroglu during the elections in order to delegitimize the opposition campaign.

The two weeks between the first and second rounds of the presidential elections were marked by the criminalization of the pro-Kurdish political movement from both sides—particularly accusations of terrorism. It can therefore be predicted that any pro-Kurdish mayors who succeed in the 2024 local elections will be removed from their posts, and some of the newly-elected pro-Kurdish MPs will be in jail in a few years’ time. Discourses that accuse Kurdish politicians of being linked to terrorism will continue to be used against pro-Kurdish politics by a variety of actors, as they were before the election.

Rise of anti-immigrant racism

The topics that dominated discourse between the first and second rounds of the presidential election were the pro-Kurdish political movement and asylum seekers in Turkey. Ozdag and Ogan further legitimized the strong anti-immigrant sentiments in the country. Kilicdaroglu even stated that the opposition was coming to save the country from terror and refugees, which implies that the main problems of the country are Syrian refugees and the PKK— instead of the anti-democratic and authoritarian practices of the AKP government, its links to criminal organizations, or the complete undermining of the rule of law.

Kilicdaroglu argued that while Turkish soldiers die, Syrians walk around in ‘our streets’, thus legitimizing the Turkish military interventions in Syria. Ozdag, on the other hand, used a Turkish version of ‘Great replacement theory’ discourse, arguing that Turkey will be ‘Migrantland’ (Göçmenistan) unless Kilicdaroglu wins the elections. Erdogan also argued that his government will be returning more than one million refugees to their homes in northern Syria with the help of Qatar. As in other similar cases, anti-immigrant political positions reproduce structural racism toward non-immigrant ethnic minorities too—in this case the Kurdish people.

Shortly after the elections, some opposition-supporting public figures immediately blamed immigrants for the results and stated that Erdogan won thanks to the votes of ‘naturalized citizens’, even though data do not support these statements. Ozdag also posted some videos that allegedly show Syrian immigrants celebrating Erdogan’s electoral victory. Kilicdaroglu, in his election night discourse, stated that he could not stay silent when millions of migrants come while ‘you’ (addressed to the crowd) become second-rate citizens. This growing anti-immigrant political wave is expected to contribute to the prevailing racist structures and further strengthen authoritarianism in Turkey.

What happens next?

Turkey is facing dark days. The situation will be particularly complicated for the pro-Kurdish political movement. There is little possibility for change in the parliament, and pro-Kurdish parties are likely to lose any mayor’s offices that they may win in next year’s local elections. Being further excluded from electoral politics, the pro-Kurdish political movement is likely to lose even more ground. Media, academia, and civil society will be under heavy pressure in the next few years. The Kurdish diaspora and other international actors must fight against censorship and human rights violations from afar.

Anti-democratic practices will continue in Turkey. Peace will be delegitimized. Pro-war discourse will be even more common as the opposition reproduces it in order to obtain a portion of nationalist votes to secure a victory in 2024’s local elections.

Anti-intellectualism is also on the rise in Turkey. This sentiment can be seen in social media posts by public figures before and during the elections, which include claims that ‘it is no time for analysis’, mocking intellectuals for their ideas, and demonizing diaspora intellectuals. This anti-intellectual discourse is adopted by Erdogan’s supporters and the main opposition alike. As in all cases of authoritarianism, it will continue to grow in Turkey unless political actors can transform this situation by establishing new institutions and platforms. Members of the diaspora can play an important role in this.

The pro-Kurdish political movement and the Kurdish people will face difficult days—both within and outside of Turkey. They will need significant support immediately: reports of repression are already pouring in, and the near future appears even more grim for Turkey’s Kurds. It is true that the pro-Kurdish political movement is more than its electoral elements—and, in any case, the number of pro-Kurdish MPs will not be significantly lower than that of the last parliamentary term. But Turkey is going down a dangerous road. International actors should prepare to respond to human rights violations, political repression, and anti-democratic actions now—not wait until the new government’s next escalation.

About the Author

Serhat Tutkal


Serhat Tutkal holds a Ph.D. in Human and Social Sciences from the National University of Colombia and a master’s in Political Science from Ankara University. His research focuses on state-sponsored violence in Latin America and the Midd…

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